Michigan hosts some of the best night ice fishing in the country and sportsmen are discovering the fantastic action on the night shift. Some panfish, inland lake walleyes, smelt and more have become active when the sun sets and the night is dark as black ink. Smelt for instance are difficult to hook on Gull, Green or Higgins Lake when the day is sunny but come sundown their feeding activity increases and by midnight they go on a feeding spree. Big slab crappie are night feeders too, and those who set up shanties, drill holes and get the space heater cookin’ can be in for some midnight madness when crappie are snappin’ lures. The following anecdote best describes the fishing fun.
The clock struck midnight when I noticed my Gotcha spring bobber wiggling on my rod tip and slowly bending down to signal a strike from a winter crappie. I lifted the rod from the holder, pointed the tip at the black hole in the ice and allowed the fish to fully take the hook before I set the hook. There is no rush hooking crappie, winter fish slowly take the hook and you have plenty of time to set the hook. My custom ultra-lite rod bent double to the fight of the big slab and soon the white crappie filled the hole. I grabbed him by his large mouth and paper thin lips that held the tiny glow jig tipped with a waxie. Soon my bucket was full of slabs and it was time for me to take down the shanty and drive home. One glance at my watch confirmed it was after midnight and I thought how amazing it is crappie are night feeders. I also wondered how many Michigan fishermen are missing the hot crappie bite because they only fish during the day. My point is the best crappie fishing takes place when the sun has gone down and the night is silent.
I cut my teeth fishing crappie through the ice on Sanford and Wixom Lakes near Edenville. My high school pals and I would drill holes above structure and work the same areas where crappie would school during spring and fall but we didn’t catch many fish. One lesson from an old time ice fishermen and we discovered that winter crappie tend to school in deep water where conditions are stable and more food is available. So, we moved to the center of the lake and our catch increased.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned about ice fishing for crappie came from a group of anglers on Sanford Lake. We were fishing at a place called Coach Cove where anglers would park along the lake and setup over deep water crappie lairs. One Saturday we were coming off the ice at sunset when a group of anglers carrying Coleman lanterns asked us how we did. They looked at the few fish we had in our pail and remarked that we could catch many more crappie if we fished at night. So we came back to the location around 10 p.m. and ran across the ice to distant shanties aglow from the light of lanterns. We asked fishermen if they were getting any crappie and much to our surprise anglers had hefty catches, buckets full with some trophy fish mixed in.
That’s when we hammered together a fish house made for two and we centered it at lightning speed over a couple hot holes that produced crappie during the day. I borrowed my father’s red single mantle Coleman lantern and we hit the ice with high hopes of landing fish. We were not disappointed and soon discovered the hot bite would come around 10 and sometimes midnight.
Our strategy was simple; we would jump on the ice after swim meets or high school basketball and fish until 1 a.m. I’d come home whipped and dead tired from the ice fishing adventures into the wee hours after midnight. But our catches soared and after learning the many benefits of night fishing our day outings were eliminated. We became crappie night owls.
The best rig was simple; a long shank hook with a crappie minnow hooked through the back suspended 8-20 inches off bottom. A split shot was placed about 12 inches from the hook and we used a small bobber to detect strikes. I became fond of using a gold hook for crappie and was convinced the light shimmered off the metal shank attracted fish to the swimming minnow. The lessons learned years ago regarding crappie ice fishing still are golden today.
We found that by using two lanterns and lighting up the shanty our catch soared. The extra light helped to see the little bobber slowly go underwater on a bite. More importantly the added light seemed to attract fish. We soon switched to double mantle lanterns that provided more light. Little did we know the extra light would draw microorganisms under our shanty which in turn brought in schools of minnows and the crappie soon followed. We also learned we would catch more fish if we placed the lantern next to the hole on the ice rather than hanging the light overhead. We would also put aluminum foil on the side facing the angler to reduce the bright light glowing in our eyes.
Back then there was a huge bait shop just west of Sanford with large tanks filled with minnows. We would keep crappie minnows alive by constantly pouring lake water into the minnow bucket and keeping ice from forming on the top. We quickly discovered that if you want to increase your catch you need to use lively minnows. Minnows that are lethargic draw fewer strikes and dead minnows were a waste of good fishing time. Some bait shops keep minnows in relatively warm water and the instant you drop them through the hole they quiver and die from water temperature shock. The trick is to slowly add lake water and mix until the minnows are accustomed to the icy water. Savvy ice anglers keep minnows lively for one simple reason; to increase their catch.
We also learned that if you use a small single hook that is lightweight minnows live longer. The trick to fishing success hinged on how you hooked the bait. Those who stabbed minnows through the spine killed them and they produced few strikes. But if you barely hook the minnow above the spine near the dorsal fin it will stay alive longer and catch more fish. The trick is to use a super sharp hook and thread it just under the skin. Oh sure, some crappie would slam the lively bait and pull it off the hook and swim away. But far more would take the wiggling minnow into their mouth, hold on longer and you would ice more crappies.
Today I use the same old strategy but I have no bobber and only a BB shot to take minnows deep and I set the lively minnow at any desired depth by watching on my Vexilar electronics. Most of the time I can watch crappie slowly approach the dead stick lively minnow and see the take on my wiggling rod tip or spring bobber on the end of my rod. One of my deadliest tactics is to use two rods. Since I’m right handed and prefer to jig with my right hand I set a minnow near bottom and put the rod in a rod holder where I can reach it with my left hand to set the hook. In the right hole I use a spinning outfit rigged with 3 pound Asso fluorocarbon line and use a small jig tipped with a wax worm. I allow the jig to freefall to the bottom and slowly jig it upward using a stair-step jigging cadence. The entire time my eyes are glued on the Vexilar electronics and when I see fish approaching the dancing jig I slow the jigging action. This is when I slowly move the offering slightly above the big red line on the graph. Now I twitch the jig by diddling the rod tip and hold it stationary. Now is the time to watch the rod tip or spring bobber for the telltale twitch of a strike. With the jig/waxie offering I set the hook the instant crappie suck in the bait.
Savvy Michigan fishermen who walk on water often pull pop-up style shanties that are lightweight, warm and have enough head room to set the hook. Some prefer the single or two man models but for night crappie I love the extra room in my cabin style Shappell Deluxe 400 two-man with four holes, door zippers, and marine carpeted floor, pop-up ski system for dragging and 80-inch height to allow me to set the hook. I can set it up in minutes and take it down and move to a new spot fast. Get two double lanterns glowing in this baby and you don’t need your jacket or gloves and there is enough room for a comfortable chair and all the fishing goodies, plus you can see to bait hooks, unhook fish or tie on itsy panfish hooks.
Some nights the fishing is sizzling hot and the action is too fast paced to use two lines. Other nights the action slows and you will spend more time waiting for strikes than cranking up fish. My two rod system can be quickly modified to two double dead sticks with minnows or two jigging rods depending on the mood of the fish. I always begin every outing by jigging with a glow Tungsten jig tipped with a wax worm. My favorite jig is a glow black spots design model number E62 available from www.YourBobbersDown.com or call (734) 316-7476. I like the 4mm size. At times you only need one rod to catch your limit. When you have several fish on the graph your best bet is to work the crappie at the top of the spindle shaped school. Fish highest in the water column are usually the most active and likely to strike. Plus if you are harvesting fish from the top of the school you are not disturbing fish at the bottom that could strike later.
Another trick is to fish a plain jig on one rod and use a jig with scented plastic on the other. Crappie like super soft scented plastic tails as much as bluegills. My suggestion is to use the Little Atom soft plastics with Wolfram jigs for an unbeatable combination. Micro Nuggies are the ticket for bluegills and crappie love them colored white, hot chartreuse and glow. But don’t overlook the attracting power of forked tail soft plastics like the Duppies or sparkle tail colors on the paddle tail Skimpies. Again, Your Bobbers Down is the source for the latest in ice fishing jigs and plastics.
It is my opinion that on certain nights crappie are somewhat lethargic and seem to prefer dead stick live minnow offerings. Most nights you can get some active fish to follow and strike a dancing jig tipped with a waxie. When they are active, fired up fish are attracted to plastics giving you the added action to draw crappie long distances and entice strikes. Oh, I just want to tell you that the above strategies sizzle when fishing perch but for perch switch to the day shift.
There is something powerfully addictive about ice fishing at night. The distant howl of coyote and constant pounding, loud snapping of ice keep your senses alert. The ever present howling wind and blowing snow is a reminder the arctic-like weather is one of God’s natural wonders. Ice fishing provides the ultimate in solitude and allows us to place life’s troubles on the back burner. Fishing changes lives for the better, especially those of kids. Then POW! You see the strike, set the hook, and feel the feisty fish struggling and another fat crappie comes to the hole.